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Graduation Speech


Tanya Chianese, Guest Speaker

San Francisco State University

School of Theatre & Dance

2017 Graduation Ceremony

May 26, 2017

Thank you Elyssa for that warm introduction. To the faculty, staff, proud families and most importantly, to the 2017 graduates of San Francisco State University’s School of Theatre and Dance thank you for inviting me to celebrate with you today.


When I was asked to be the guest speaker for today’s ceremony, I was floored. It took a lot of concentration to maintain my professionalism and not exclaim “Why on earth would you want to hear from me? I don’t know what I’m doing.”


However, as I have prepared for this honor, I have realized my initial fear is actually the best advice I have to offer.


There is no handbook on a career in the arts that tells one how to succeed in ways that are relevant today. There is no path to promotion, no corporate ladder to climb, no formula for success.


Instead, the methods in which an artist goes about making a career successful are so unique to each individual. This is both terrifying and liberating. Terrifying, of course, because sometimes it means you will feel lost and adrift with no signposts to guide you. Liberating, because you literally get to create your own career.


If you feel unqualified, you are not alone. Everyone feels that way. I was once expressing to a friend my stress about a large, upcoming commission and how I felt I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. She advised me that no matter how lost and unqualified we feel, we have been preparing and training for these moments our whole lives. And it’s true. You have just been given a basket of tools from the generous professors sitting behind me, now you get to go use them. You’re capable of more than you know and you can be successful in anything you put your mind to.


Now to be clear, there is no one definition of “success.” Success is relative. You have already succeeded, you are sitting here today, as graduates. Therefore, throw away the traditional notions success, and instead reach for the goals that empower, fulfill and energize you to make a difference in this world.


When I first moved to San Francisco after a year of quitting dance, I was too embarrassed to tell people I was moving to pursue professional performing, in case I failed. I secretly told myself I would have “made it” when I landed my first audition, which somehow happened within the first month. Then, I decided success would be when I received my first large paycheck for performing, then when I supported myself 100% via my art. When I launched my dance company ka·nei·see | collective, I told myself success would be if we produced one show and even one person came. Well, not only did one person come, but we sold-out every single performance (including Super Bowl Sunday) and made the front cover of the San Francisco Chronicle. I remember standing on the side of the street in 8:30am rush-hour traffic crying as I held that newspaper in my hands, in glorious shock and disbelief. In the movie version of my life, that moment would be in the trailer, maybe with some dramatic rain. I invite you to ask yourself what the movie trailer of your life would be. It’s quite fun to imagine, and is a helpful reminder that all the ups and downs of your experience are necessary to your narrative.


Since you are graduating from the School of Theatre & Dance, you obviously know a good story must have its conflicts. As cliché as it is, life, and particularly one in the arts, is all about the failure. As hard as it is in the moment, without fail (pun intended) you will learn something and become a better person.

Throughout my own path there have been signs where it seemed like I would not make it. Once, I was not told until I arrived at the theater before the opening night of a new production that my role had been given away. The third time I nervously presenting my choreography in public, two audience members, not knowing the choreographer was sitting directly behind them, said to each other “Well that sucked.” In my final year of an intense educational program, when I was going through a rough time and it negatively affected my body and technique, instead of being mentored I was punished by being removed from our annual big performance, my last show conveying all my hard-work and commitment. Recently, my creative eye towards celebrating feminine beauty has been continually discounted as flippant rather than powerful.


But, even in the face of these hardships I chose to keep going. And let me tell you, after having watched a ridiculous number of graduation speeches in preparation for today, every single person spoke about the roadblocks they had to overcome. So you’re not alone. No matter who you are or how experienced, you will continually face failure.


For perspective, I received 6 rejection letters from various opportunities in the past few months. Everyone I know in our field receives rejections frequently. You will too. It’s our job. A local seasoned choreographer, Deborah Slater, once said to me “Apply for as many opportunities as you possibly can to the point that you forget what you’ve applied for. Then, when the rejection letter comes it won’t be that big of a deal because you won’t have remembered.”


In moments of career despair, the best piece of advice I can give is that which I also give all my brokenhearted friends. Think of all the times in your life when things seemed horrible and you felt it would never get better. Then, think of all the wonderful experiences that followed that you had no idea were coming. The next best thing is around the corner, you just don’t know it yet. Power through. Despite my 6 rejection letters, in the past month I have also been invited to tour my dance company to Seattle and Colorado, set work on students in three different countries, and asked to speak here today. So it’s all good.


Now, if you were hoping I would show up here today and give you the secret to true’re in luck! And here it is: None of what happens in your career is as important as how you live your life. Be a good person. Be generous. Be loving and kind. Remember that as you write the screenplay to your own biopic.


No matter how small, make positive change in the world, save the earth for future generations and species who cannot speak for themselves, help those less fortunate than you, have an open and curious mind, practice empathy every day, write hand-written thank you cards.


Never forget that art is about responding to the world around us, connecting people, and telling the stories of our existence. Live fully and live well, and both you and your art will succeed.


Congratulations graduates, break a leg and merde.

I look forward to seeing the movies about your lives.


Tanya Chianese,

Artistic Director

ka·nei·see | collective

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